technology

ISPs split over blocking resurrected 8chan

Spark and 2degrees both pledged to block the 8chan website if it ever came back online. After the site relaunched as 8kun over the weekend, Spark has declined to block it, Marc Daalder reports.

After the 8chan message board was linked to yet another white supremacist mass killing in August, Chief Censor David Shanks told Newsroom he "would support any domestic ISP that decided that in these extreme circumstances they would no longer link NZ customers to 8chan".

The website had been offline since the shooting after its security company, CloudFlare, and its domain host both dumped it. Over the weekend, it relaunched as 8kun, although the 8chan far-right politics board has not yet made the jump.

8chan had previously been blocked by all major ISPs in New Zealand after the alleged Christchurch gunman uploaded his manifesto to the site. That ban was lifted a few weeks after the Christchurch attack.

Censor backed ISP action

After its link to the El Paso, Texas shooting in August - the third white supremacist mass killing in six months that used the site to distribute a manifesto - 8chan became the target of global outrage. In New Zealand, Shanks endorsed action by ISPs to block the website.

"We ... welcome the recent announcement by CloudFlare, who have decided to terminate their service to 8chan, noting that it had 'repeatedly proven itself to be a cesspool of hate'. Hatred like this does not need to be tolerated on the internet, or anywhere," he said in August.

Shanks predicted that the site would return to the internet before long. "It remains to be seen when, and in what guise, 8chan may re-emerge on the internet," he said.

Victoria University of Wellington law school lecturer Dr Marcin Betkier specialises in internet law, and told Newsroom that there's no legal reason that ISPs couldn't block 8chan at any time. Such an action could block specific parts of the website or block the entire site at the DNS level.

"They have contracts with customers and, as far as I know, those contracts have quite broad terms related to restricting service," Betkier said.

Shanks urged ISPs to consider their responsibilities to "protect New Zealanders from harmful content".

Spark softens stance

After Newsroom published its report, Spark and 2degrees said they would block access to the site for their customers if it resurfaced.

A 2degrees spokesperson told Newsroom at the time that, "If and when the site in question finds a host and becomes live again, we will block the site again".

On Tuesday, a spokesperson for the ISP said it had followed through on the promise. "In keeping with our August statement, 8kun has been blocked," the spokesperson said.

When Newsroom originally asked Spark for comment on blocking 8chan, the service provider said it would not do so. After Newsroom reported that Shanks had asked ISPs to block the site, Spark chief executive Jolie Hodson said on Twitter the company would step in.

Now, Spark has switched positions once again. A Spark spokesperson told Newsroom, "At this stage we haven’t blocked it nor have we made any decision in principle to do so. Our previous position was specific to 8chan should it come back online. While it is apparent that 8kun has some similar content to 8chan it is not clear whether it is indeed the same site."

Despite directing Spark to a tweet from 8chan saying that 8kun was its new platform, the spokesperson said the company still strongly disagreed that it had changed its stance on blocking 8chan.

Government urged to do more

ISPs and other stakeholders all agree that more action from the Government is also needed. InternetNZ chief executive Jordan Carter said that the current situation leaves important decisions to private companies.

"It does not make sense for internet service providers to make decisions about what material New Zealanders should and should not see," Carter said in August.

"There is no debate that there is some dark corners on the internet. As a country, we need to make careful decisions about who should have the ability to block any parts of the internet."

When asked in August whether she would like to see 8chan shut down, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern responded, "Look, those aren’t decisions for me. What I want to make sure, though, is that we do what we can to create a regulatory environment where we do not see violent extremism and violence and terrorism circulated online. We do have a sense of responsibility to try and create that framework."

More recently, Ardern announced the Government was considering an internet filter for violent extremist content like the one it runs for child pornography.

Eddie Clark, a public law lecturer at Victoria University of Wellington, agreed that New Zealand is not equipped to deal with websites like 8chan.

"There is no obvious legal reason why we would treat publication on the internet any differently than publication in a newspaper or a flyer or that sort of thing. It's the practical reality of whether you can actually regulate it in the way that we do regulate media and distribution," he said in August.

"I don't see this as magically different in kind than a lot of sorts of regulation that we already do. There are also laws against distributing hateful material via the postal system, for example. The law on technological stuff is just massively behind in how you apply the basic principles [of existing regulations] in a new technological context."

Spark and Vodafone both said the Government needed to step up on this issue. Vodafone, which said in August that it wouldn't block 8chan and maintains that position today, stressed that it doesn't want to give undue publicity to the website.

The ISP's Head of External Affairs Rich Llewellyn said, "We won’t be blocking 8kun unless the Chief Censor rules the content as objectionable - and then we will block this or other sites only if a whole website falls under this ruling."

Spark's spokesperson echoed these comments. "Currently, the only site that we are blocking is the website that is selling the banned video game based on the Christchurch shootings. This is because the video game clearly aims to “glorify” the gunman involved in the Christchurch shootings, make money off this atrocity, and has now been banned by the Chief Censor," the spokesperson said.

"We’ve always taken a consistent view that the appropriate agencies of Government should put in place a robust policy framework to address the important issues surrounding such material being distributed online and freely available."

Site linked to killings

In the aftermath of a shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which a white supremacist allegedly killed 22 people in the predominately Hispanic community, 8chan went offline.

The suspect released a manifesto onto the website, elaborating on his white supremacist views and citing the Christchurch terror attack as an inspiration.

8chan was also a go-to source for the alleged gunmen in the Christchurch terror attack and Poway, California synagogue shooting. The suspects in both massacres posted manifestos or documents explaining their ideology and actions to the message board before or after they opened fire.

The website also plays host to QAnon, a conspiracy theory that posits cryptic postings on the message board are actually from US President Donald Trump or a Trump-aligned official who has infiltrated a supposed American "deep state" and is working to expose a child sex ring involving high-level Obama administration officials.

* This article has been updated with additional comment from Spark, noting it disagrees strongly with the suggestion it has changed its position on blocking 8chan.

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